Nipped in five games by just 13 points, the 2012 Spartans came close to double-digit wins for the third straight season but had to “settle” for a 6-6 tally and Mark Dantonio’s sixth straight bowl, an MSU record.
Despite the disappointments, Dantonio’s program stayed competitive and continued to forge ahead. “The season went on a downward slide but the program is showing no signs of slippage,” says Jim Comparoni, editor and publisher of Spartan Magazine. “The last two years MSU was 8-0 in close games; this year, MSU was 3-4 in close games.”
MSU’s trademark defense remained stout, ranking atop the Big Ten with only 114.8 rushing yards and 16.3 points allowed a game. MSU’s defense ranked in the Top 20 in the NCAA FBS in seven categories, including total defense and scoring defense. Incredibly, “Gang Green” allowed only five rushing touchdowns all season—second in the nation only to Notre Dame. The young offense, however, was beset by growing pains and injuries, ranking ninth in the conference with an average scoring of 19.9 points. Still, running back Le’Veon Bell led the Big Ten with a rushing average of 137.3 yards even though the offensive line was reshuffled throughout the season.
In the previous two 11-win years, the Spartans enjoyed some breaks in close games. But in 2012, MSU failed to make the key plays and lost four of six close games. Unfortunate bounces, tips and even whistles played a role in losses to Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska—often in the waning seconds.
“We had some missed opportunities . . . You have to take advantage of those opportunities to win,” Dantonio sighs, but promptly adding that the program is on solid footing. “We compete,” he says. “Our chemistry is very good. We have good young people. . . They’re getting stronger.”
Dantonio believes when you look at things in perspective, a better picture emerges. “I see a football team that plays extremely hard, that gets ready to play every week, that comes with a great motor, and it’s one play away in a number of games. Where that one play is, tough to say . . . Some of it you can’t control.
“They’re going to recognize that sometimes life’s not fair. But you get back up and you play again.”
In the preseason, hopes were high, as many pundits favored MSU to win the Big Ten championship. The opener against Boise State did not shatter the notion. MSU won 17-13 with Le’Veon Bell bulldozing for 210 rushing yards—surpassing the Bronco’s total offensive production of 206 yards, which was an all-time low for Boise State in the Chris Petersen era. MSU’s passing game seemed to click whenever Andrew Maxwell threw to tight end Dion Sims, who caught a career-high seven passes.
After polishing off Central Michigan 41-7 in Mt. Pleasant, the favored Spartans were “upset” by Notre Dame 20-3 to end a 15-game home winning streak. The Fighting Irish went on to a 12-0 regular season record and a top national ranking. Next, MSU took care of Eastern Michigan 23-7 before starting conference play.
In four of the next six games, MSU lost by one point to Ohio State, by three to Iowa in double overtime, by two to Michigan in Ann Arbor, and by four to Nebraska. MSU won close games at Wisconsin and Indiana, beating the very two teams that vied to represent the Leaders Division in the conference championship game in Indianapolis.
Making matters more bitter, in all the close MSU losses, the games were decided in the waning seconds. A dubious interference whistle against cornerback Darqueze Dennard led to Nebraska’s winning touchdown with six seconds left. Michigan’s two-point win came from a 38-yard field goal with five seconds left; the kick allowed the Wolverines to escape a fifth straight loss to MSU. Iowa secured its win on the very last play in double overtime after MSU dominated most of the stats. Ohio State’s one-point win might have been negated by an MSU 42-yard field goal, which Senior Kicker Dan Conroy missed, or by a potential touchdown after an interception that the referees blew dead prematurely.
MSU Quarterback Andrew Maxwell clearly improved during the season, firing the TD in Madison, WI, to Junior Wide Receiver Bennie Fowler in overtime. He wound up fifth in the Big Ten with 205 passing yards per game. Fowler, along with Sophomore Wide Receivers Keith Mumphery and Tony Lippett improved as pass catchers while Freshman Aaron Burbridge emerged, averaging 13.2 yards a catch. Senior Guard Chris McDonald was the mainstay of an offensive line that had injuries to every other position, including to Junior Tight End Dion Sims, a mid-season Phil Steele All American.
Junior Middle Linebacker Max Bullough, a Butkus Award semifinalist, led the team averaging almost 9 tackles a game. He was complemented by Chris Norman and Denicos Allen, along with rising Sophomore Linebacker Taiwan Jones. Sophomore Safety Kris Drummond emerged to complete a stingy backfield along with Isaiah Lewis and Cornerbacks Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. Junior Defensive Ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush bookended the defensive line alongside interior defensive linemen led by 330-pound Senior Anthony Rashad White.
Special teams were led by Conroy, Kick-off Specialist Kevin Muma and Academic All-American Punter Mike Sadler, an athlete who also managed a 26-yard run for a first down against Michigan.
Dantonio sees enough positives in the season on which to build. “I’m very proud of the way our players handled things, because a lot of people would not be able to sustain after a Michigan game and play the way we did at Wisconsin and win in the end,” he notes. “A lot of people wouldn’t be able to sustain the following week after an emotional victory or the letdown going into the Iowa week. So we’ve come out ready to play every week, and that is the trademark of what we’ve been able to accomplish here, and we want to continue to be able to do that.”
2012 HALL OF FAME CLASS—Sept. 20: MSU inducted six members into its Athletics Hall of Fame—Carl Banks, two-time All-American linebacker who went on to win two Super Bowls with the New York Giants; Emily Bastel, golf star and two-time MSU Female Athlete of the Year; Clinton Jones, star running back of the national championship 1965 football team and a track star; Shawn Respert, MSU’s all-time scoring leader in men’s basketball and only four-time leading scorer; Diane Spoelstra, a star in women’s basketball, softball and volleyball, who keyed MSU’s run to the 1976 AIAW National Championship; and George Szypula, men’s gymnastics coach for 41 years, with NCAA and Big Ten titles.
KROLL WINS CROSS COUNTRY—Oct. 28: MSU proved true to its tradition as a cross country powerhouse when junior Sara Kroll won the 2012 Big Ten Championship at MSU’s Forest Akers East golf course. Kroll finished the 6K race in 20:13 and led the Spartan women to a second place team finish. “I gave this race everything I had,” says Kroll. “Being able to race . . . on our home course is just a blessing.” Walt Drenth, MSU director of cross country/track and field, says the whole women’s team ran well. “We didn’t hold any cards back,” he notes. MSU hosted the first 26 NCAA cross country championships from 1938 to 1964 and boasts eight men’s NCAA titles in the sport.
RING OF HONOR—Former MSU Hall of Fame football coaches Biggie Munn (1947-53) and Duffy Daugherty (1955-72), who oversaw MSU’s golden age of football, have been added to the “Ring of Fame” in Spartan Stadium. Between them they boast six national titles, three Big Ten titles and two wins in three Rose Bowls. They produced 46 of MSU’s 79 All Americans. Munn is MSU’s all-time winningest percentage coach at .857 and was the architect of a 28-game win streak from 1950-53. Daugherty produced national championship teams in 1965 and 1966 and was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Daugherty’s success in fielding a number of black stars is cited as a key step to ending racial segregation in southern schools.
MSU WINS SOCCER TITLE—Nov. 11: With winds that reached 40 mph, MSU men’s soccer team beat Michigan 2-1 in Evanston, IL, to win the 2012 Big Ten Tournament championship. The winning goal in overtime—a boomer from 35 yards—was made by freshman Sean Conerty. Fellow freshman keeper Zach Bennett made six saves in the second half, while Adam Montague tallied MSU’s first goal. “The game was indicative of our whole year,” says head coach Damon Rensing. “We had some success, we got down, we weathered the storm. The real credit goes to our players.” MSU previously won the tournament title in 2004 and 2008.
FIELDS OF DREAMS—The 2012 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the San Francisco Giants featured a Spartan angle. Their fields of play—Comerica Park and AT&T Park—are maintained under the leadership of MSU alumni. Heather Nabozny, ’93, has been Detroit’s head groundskeeper since 1999. Greg Elliott, ’02, has been San Francisco’s head groundskeeper for five seasons. Nabozny says the spotlight on both fields “speaks volumes of the MSU turf management program.” MSU turfgrass faculty and students have worked on several Olympic facilities and created the indoor portable athletic field for the 1994 World Cup at the Pontiac Silverdome.
HOLLIS FAMILY GIFT—Mark, ’85, and Nancy Hollis, ’86, have announced a $1 million gift to MSU in support of an academic scholarship endowment, improvements to Spartan Stadium and arts programming at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum and the Wharton Center for Performing Arts. Both work on campus: Mark is director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Nancy works in the study abroad program. Nearly half the gift, $460,000, will fund the Hollis Family Endowed Scholarship. Another $40,000 supports arts enrichment at the Broad Art Museum and Wharton Center. The rest goes to the North End Zone project at Spartan Stadium, which Mark says is “critical to the future of the football program and will improve the entire athletics program.”